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Hot debate over future of fee-for-access in Grays Harbor

MONTESANO — A standing-room-only crowd weighed in on the county commissioners potentially preventing forestland owners from getting property tax breaks, while at the same time charging hunters and others to access the land for recreation purposes.

The crowd was divided. One group, farmers and small forest land owners, told commissioners the program was an overreach of their authority. The other, hunters and hikers, viewed the proposed ordinance as a fair way to punish timber companies that have implemented programs charging hundreds of dollars to access private forest land while getting the tax breaks.

“Raise their taxes as far as you can!” one man called out from the podium to huge applause from the audience. “Stick it to them. Stick it to them!”

Ultimately, the county commissioners postponed any decision until their July 7 commission meeting at 2 p.m.

The Weyerhaeuser Co. recently started charging fees to access its timberland, choosing to close its gates to anyone who doesn’t buy a permit. Before that, the land was essentially open to anyone. The decision by the Federal Way-based company helped push County Commissioner Wes Cormier into proposing the changes to the county’s forest management plan.

The meeting attracted about 120 people — more than the number of seats in the room. Some stood against the wall or sat on the floor and others had to go into an adjacent overflow and heard testimony on speakers.

“If the county had had this meeting on a Friday at 6 p.m., they’d probably fill Olympic Stadium,” a member of the audience chimed out.

Kyle Winton, the president of the Eyes in the Woods Association, said he was disappointed in Weyerhaeuser’s decision, noting that the non-profit organization had a great working relationship with the timber company. Its members would keep their eyes open and report cedar thieves and illegal activity as they were hunting or hiking.

Winton said the company’s policy change will be felt as tourism for hunting opportunities is reduced, over-harvest and overcrowding on public lands will increase and wildlife management will be hurt.

Other hunters challenged Weyerhaeuser’s talking point that the access fees were needed to reduce vandalism. Multiple hunters noted that anyone who dumps garbage illegally could just do it at the gates or find another way into the timberland to do it.

Polson Museum Executive Director John Larson of Hoquiam noted that the county sees a consistent stream of people coming for just a day or a week to check our historical sites, including old logging camps that would be locked away by Weyerhaeuser.

Brett Moore of Raymond came to the podium on crutches missing one of his legs. How is someone in his condition supposed to be able to access the timberland if the gates are all locked? he asked commissioners.

He added that Weyerhaeuser was creating a private hunter preserve where only the rich can afford to hunt.

“I get $719 a month to live on, after paying my bills, power and electric, I have $54 a month to live on?” Moore said. “How am I supposed to afford a pass for a gate?”

Weyerhaeuser officials were conspicuously absent from the meeting as were officials from other large timber companies of the area, including Rayonier and Green Diamond.

Cormier and fellow Commissioner Frank Gordon said they both privately met with three Weyerhaeuser officials last week. Cormier says he was told by the timber company officials that the proposed ordinance was illegal.

An official with the state Department of Revenue also sent an unsolicited letter on June 20 warning that the ordinance is “inconsistent with existing state laws and rules and should not be incorporated into your ordinance merging the current use timber and designated forest land classifications in the county.”

The state’s “open space” forest designation program came into place in 1971, allowing timber companies to get a break on their annual property taxes with the knowledge that the county will recover most of those taxes when the timber is eventually harvested. The state put the program in place, but left it to the counties to determine what should be in the forest management plan that timber companies are required to abide by. The Grays Harbor County commissioners, spearheaded by Cormier, have proposed an ordinance that would prevent fees for access as a condition of opting into the “open space” tax break program.

Cormier said the county doesn’t stand to make any extra money off of the ordinance in tax revenue. In fact, taxpayers all over the county would actually pay less in taxes if the timber companies have to pay more.

Cormier said he and attorneys in the Prosecutor’s Office have reviewed the ordinance and believe it’s viable.

“I believe if this goes to court, we will win,” Cormier said.

Former county commissioner Terry Willis disagreed.

“This ordinance, as written, will most likely not stand up to a challenge in court,” Willis told the commissioners. “While the county has the legal authority to merge the current use timberland classification into designated forest land, ousting an owner from the designation because an access fee is charged is in direct contradiction to the legislative declaration for timber and forest lands. That declaration states that the state’s policy is to encourage forestry because present and future generations will benefit from activities of working forests by enhancing water supply, providing a habitat for wild game and providing scenic and recreational spaces. This ordinance simply does not support that intent.”

Willis, who lost her commissioner seat to Cormier two years ago, is now president of the Grays Harbor-Pacific County Farm Bureau. She owns a farm with her husband, Greg, in Brady. She notes that the local Farm Bureau’s board of directors unanimously voted to oppose the ordinance, noting to the commissioners that the organization “encourages you to abandon the unreal notion that the citizens of this county will be better served if timber land owners are limited to only providing free access to their properties.”

PROPERTY RIGHTS

Fellow farmer Owen Shaffner of Montesano said he was worried that that there could be a “slippery slope” where his farmland can no longer get a property tax break because he allows berry pickers on it to collect berries by the pound.

“This proposed ordinance is a violation of our property rights,” Shaffner said.

Cormier noted that farmers are not required to do a county management plan — just timber owners, so it would be impossible for the ordinance to eventually impact farmers.

Michael Perreault wrote an email to the commissioners saying he was worried that the ordinance would impact his small family forest. He owns 200 acres between Elma and McCleary.

“It’s difficult to understand how charging a nominal fee for hunting access to our timber property would supersede the primary purpose of our land management — timber production,” Perreault wrote.

“The state charges fees to use public lands,” adds small forest land owner Harold Brunstad of Montesano. “It seems reasonable that private landowners should be able to charge the public for access to private land if they so choose.”

Bill Pickell, the former executive director of Washington Contract Loggers who lives in Hoquiam, said he should be allowed to set up a gun club on his forest land if he wants and not lose his tax break.

“I could see that the big timber companies could just put locks on everything and everything would be posted,” Pickell told the commissioners. “I think what we’ve got to do is these guys have to be threatened a little bit so that the price has to come down so it’s a reasonable price to go on those lands — $25 or $50 makes sense to me, but not $600 or $700 in some cases for shooting elk.”